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Clemson Remains Championship Good

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Tigers clearly deserve to be considered one of the top contenders to make it to the College Football Playoff.

Defending national champions are, without exception, given two things: rings and the benefit of the doubt. With Clemson, it shouldn't be any different. Though the Tigers must replace a number of program greats, most notably quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson, unlike its half-dozen selections in the NFL Draft, isn't going anywhere. The Tigers clearly deserve to be considered one of the top contenders to make it to the College Football Playoff; their rising juniors haven't experienced anything else.

Clemson has earned that expectation. Dating back to 2014, the Tigers have won 31-of-33 games and 37-of-40, beating ten ranked teams over the past years. Remarkably, Clemson defeated national powers Oklahoma and Ohio State in consecutive semifinal pairings by a combined score of 68-17. The Tigers have twice gone blow-for-blow with Alabama, scoring two go-ahead touchdowns with less than five minutes to play, including, most recently, the iconic game-winner from Watson to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining.

"Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top," head coach Swinney explained about the title-game triumph. "We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying."

Sure, there are questions at quarterback, but there are very few anywhere else. The lack of an experienced signal caller doesn't mean a team can't contend for a championship. In each of the three editions of the College Football Playoff, new starters under center helped lead their team to the promised land, including a trio of quarterbacks for the Buckeyes in 2014 and a true freshman for the Crimson Tide last fall. Whoever steps in as the starter for the Tigers will be just one name on a roster loaded with top-level talent.

The line of scrimmage will be a major strength for Clemson, a stabilizing force that has anchored Alabama over the years. Led by the likes of All-American candidates Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, the Tigers will have college football's best defensive line -- and it really isn't close. Winning up front is about more than just personnel for Clemson, it's about psychology; these Tigers relentlessly attack. Clemson has led the nation in tackles for loss a stunning four seasons in a row. Additionally, tackle Mitch Hyatt and guard Tyrone Crowder are stars along the offensive line.

In terms of playmakers, expect more of the same there, too. Clemson likely has the ACC's best collection of wide receivers, with Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and the now-legendary Renfrow all back and more young talent coming in.

In terms of the schedule, top division foe Florida State comes upstate and the Tigers have won two in a row in series, with the Seminoles having won just once at Clemson since 2001. 

Swinney's culture is a winning one. Matched up against the best of the best, his results reflect that. Looking ahead, the Tigers have the top-ranked and third-ranked recruits in the country, via the ESPN300, committed for the class of 2018. Even with some big names from the year prior now gone, Clemson is poised to compete both now and in the future.  

There was no short-cut to prominence for the Tigers, nor will there be a short stay.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports